The Problem with Grammar

The Problem with Grammar: workshop at the English 101/GRW spring meeting (February 2012)

Overview: we know the issues with grammar in student writing—an important element of our goals and outcomes for First-Year Writing: grasp of the conventions of standard written English. Some complicating problems I want to suggest, and then frame a way into some targeted discussion of this problem.

  1. Student problems with grammar: are better and worse than they think—depending on how they define “grammar” (note the first survey: half said needed more, or at least other students needed more; half said it was helpful)
  2. Research suggests: students are better with grammar than we think

To focus our attention, and to give a good overview of the research as well as ideas for strategies and policies: John Bean, Engaging Ideas, chapter 5: “Dealing with Issues of Grammar and Correctness.” I value the approach he takes to integrating the focus on grammar within the overall vision of writing and critical thinking as problem-based, as the learner’s engagement with a problem.

  • Summary of Bean’s perspective
    • Research: conclusion of 1963 study (p. 68). The teaching of formal grammar (ie, traditional approach, apart from writing—think 8th grade) “has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing.”
    • Different definitions of grammar
      • Key, difference between “knowing how” and “knowing about”
      • Hartwell’s 5 types of grammar: [1]internalized/innate; [2]scientific/linguistic description of that internal grammar;[3]grammar of linguistic etiquette; [4]traditional school grammar; [5]stylistic grammar (Strunk and White, etc)
      • As such: we are really talking about usage (language conventions) and errors in usage—and I follow Bean in this middle ground: errors do matter, but not because they reflect ignorance or incompetence with language or writing, but because they are rhetorically ineffective, and can/should be edited
        • Key principle: distinguish between revision and editing—and give more attention in your response to initial drafting to revision comments
    • Bean’s review of recent studies of error (pages 73-79)
      • Errors have always been an issue; students make fewer mistakes than teachers perceive; students have more linguistic competence than surface features of their prose indicates; errors increase with greater cognitive difficulty of assignment; errors disappear as students progress through multiple drafts; expect to see sentence-level errors in first drafts; traditional grading (marking errors) may exacerbate the problem
    • Strategies
      • Focus on the rhetorical ineffectiveness of un-edited errors
        • Very serious vs. serious errors
        • Give out a list of 20 most common errors
        • Have students monitor their own errors to-do list
      • Students Responsible for Finding and Fixing their own errors: the ‘minimal marking’ strategy.
        • Corey Olsen does a version of this.
        • Discussion? Related approaches?
      • My own strategies
        • I want to foreground errors as an important focal point for editing.
        • Shift responsibility to students: emphasize the web resource
          • Style/Usage guide such as Hacker
        • I have specific class time in which I foreground editing for usage errors (but also then not overwhelming the primary focus on revision)
          • Editing workshop on day writing is due
          • Wednesdays: will target issues I find in student writing, following up my grading of an assignment
          • Allows me to say: this is not a “grammar” class, but also, becoming a better editor of your own writing is important and something the class will help you to do
        • I won’t edit student writing when I evaluate their writing
          • I identify consistent issues that I see (for example, run-on sentences), factor that in to my assessment category that includes grammar/presentation/sentence-level effectiveness (limited to ¼ of overall grade)
          • Direct students to add to their to-do list, follow up with me, Writing Center, Guide to Grammar and Writing
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